How unions won the right to annual leave

Annual leave can seem like a right that has always been around – but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The only reason we have a right to annual leave is because of the long union campaign over generations to win it, and then to increase it.

This goes back all the way to 1856 when Stonemasons in Melbourne and Sydney campaigned for the eight-hour day.

The basic principle was simple: working people had a right to life beyond the workplace. We have the right to rest and recreation. Though some employers resisted this change dedicated union campaigns won the eight-hour day in the building industry in 1856.

Since then unions have consistently campaigned for reasonable working hours, and the right to take annual leave.

Printing workers first won some paid annual leave in 1935, a victory that soon spread to other industries.

This was significant because before this point leave entitlements were only included into awards by consent – that is, when employers voluntarily agreed to allow leave.

But due to union pressure leave increasingly became a right.

In 1941 union advocacy led to one week’s annual leave being implemented as the new standard. This was prompted by a case to the Arbitration Court brought by the Amalgamated Engineering Union which functioned as a benchmark award for other industries.

Since then we won an extension of this right to three weeks and then one month.

But only because we campaigned for it. So, next holiday, thank your union.

More from Australian Trade Union Institute

Laurie Carmichael – a legendary unionist

Laurie Carmichael – a legendary unionist

July 26, 2022

A guest post by Ted Clayton. Ted is the author of an award-winning thesis in…

Read More

60th Anniversary of the Labour History Society

60th Anniversary of the Labour History Society

Guest post by Bobbie Oliver (Federal Vice President ASSLH; President of Perth Branch, ASSLH). 2022…

Read More

The first Sydney Mardi Gras – and the hidden history of LGBTIQA+ unionists!

The first Sydney Mardi Gras – and the hidden history of LGBTIQA+ unionists!

June 22, 2022

On Friday 24 June we celebrate the anniversary of the first Sydney Mardi Gras, which…

Read More